ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now the crisis in South Sudan that erupted last weekend after an alleged coup attempt. South Sudan's president spent a day in a peace summit with regional heads of state. At the same time, his government warned of a rebel army, covered with white ash, marching through the bush toward the northern city of Bor. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Of all the horrific episodes in the long civil war between South Sudan and Sudan, a standout was the 1991 white army. Tens of thousands of armed young men of the Nuer tribe, covered in white ash to stave off bug bites, marched through Jonglei state to its capital, Bor, murdering thousands along the way. The leader of the white army was Riek Machar, who first was on the side of South Sudan's resistance but later switched to support Sudan. Machar later switched sides again. He helped South Sudan win independence and became the nation's vice president. Machar is now accused of attempting a coup. And the minister of information, Michael Makuei Lueth, says Machar has called back his ash-covered army to retake Bor and the capital, Juba.

MICHAEL MAKUEI LUETH: He has mobilized them again, 25,000 armed youth. And he's saying I'm going back to Bor. I'm going to recapture Bor, and I'm moving to Juba.

WARNER: The U.N. doubts the number is as high as 25,000. But the agency is worried enough by the threat that it's requested three attack helicopters for fear that the youth will storm the U.N. compound where 15,000 civilians have taken refuge. Anthony Banbury serves as the United Nations assistant secretary general for field support. He says if such a sizable youth army manages to surround the U.N. compound, it'll be too late.

ANTHONY BANBURY: Do you try and negotiate with them? Do you open fire and keep firing until you've expended the last bullet and you've created an incident that will be etched in the memory of the people of the country for a decade or more?

WARNER: The alleged white army is only one of the challenges facing the massive humanitarian effort in South Sudan. Toby Lanzer is the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations' mission in South Sudan. He says the recent rainy season has left many roads impassable.

TOBY LANZER: We have to conduct many of our operations by air. So, running an aid operation in this environment when you don't have precise information is really very, very difficult and very expensive.

WARNER: His office has appealed for $166 million just to provide the basics: blankets, water, food and basic medical care through March. And then, there's the political challenges.

LANZER: As humanitarian coordinator, I'm dealing with the consequences of a political struggle, which has turned particularly violent.

WARNER: That political struggle, brewing for half a year or more between Machar and the president, Salva Kiir, came to a head when the government says Machar launched his coup. Minister Lueth today revealed what he said was a rebel flag captured in Machar's house.

LUETH: This flag is - it is a cloth, which means that it is something planned a long time ago.

WARNER: The flag he showed was a flag unlike any country's. The stripes and colors were similar to the South Sudanese flag, but in the very center, in a white circle, was a cow. Cattle are currency in South Sudan. But even this apparent smoking gun won't convince many in South Sudan who believe that its President Salva Kiir, himself accused of corruption and tribal favoritism, manufactured the idea of a coup to solidify his own power. There is a deep divide in this country about who's a rebel and who's legitimate, and that is what makes the U.N. peacekeeping mission so challenging.

LANZER: Both in terms of peacekeeping and humanitarian programming, we have a difficult role. And, of course, there's a path that needs to be navigated carefully.

WARNER: Carefully and diplomatically. In Nairobi today, President Kiir was met by neighboring heads of state, as well as the U.S. envoy, Donald Booth. And Kiir made a major concession, agreeing to release all but three of the high level officials arrested for plotting the coup. Only a few hours earlier, his minister had said that all the men would likely be hanged. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba.

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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